At the heart of any successful project is a well-managed, cohesive team. While this sounds simple, it is often far from it, with team collaboration often hindered by a fast-paced, ever-changing work environment. Increasingly, the demands placed on the modern project management team include shifting priorities and changes in timelines and objectives, as new data is incorporated into the original project. It is, then, vital to put in place an agile team that can effectively work together in spite of the uncertainties they will face.
What is agile?
“Agile” is now a concept that applies to goals, principles, practices and, of course, teams. Being agile is about setting aside rigid, traditional, 20th-century management techniques, and becoming responsive, flexible and collaborative. Agile teams are poised to respond, adapt and pivot in a working culture that has become increasing volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
Agile teams must learn to prioritise responding to change over following a plan – which turns traditional project management techniques upside down. At first glance, the agile workplace, housing an agile team, is not the ideal environment for traditional project management strategies, but project management strategies can be adapted. Project management can also be agile.
Making project management agile
In an agile environment, project management works differently. Traditional project management establishes a detailed plan, with specific deliverables for each stage, and then follows the plan. Agile project management involves defining a desired outcome, and then working towards it in stages. Each stage of the plan is delivered in a short period of time, and then the team clarifies what needs to be done next.
In project management, agility matters most at the point of execution. The idea of agility as a broad ideal may seem inconsistent with the “milestones and deliverables” focus of traditional project management. However, agility at the point of execution is possible in well-managed projects. Teams can work together to execute specific tasks, while remaining responsive and ready to adapt to whatever new issues the execution of that task generates.
Project managers who nurture agility within their teams create successful outcomes. They learn to track and monitor progress, identify shifts in priorities and objectives, respond to new information, redistribute collaborative work as needed, map and manage inter-dependencies between different groups, and identify high-potential but overlooked experts who can take the burden off other, over-stretched, team members. Agile project management, far from being a step away from the benefits of traditional project management, builds extra strengths and advantages into the way that the team approaches tasks, deliverables and milestones.
Agility in the public sector
Agile concepts are already well-established within the private sector, and not just within small businesses and start-ups. Firms such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft have been quick to embrace an agile approach, throughout the organisation, and at a deep cultural level, but can this approach translate to public sector organisations with more traditional and measured working practices?
Agility in the public sector is possible and highly desirable. However, it needs to be accepted that organisational culture is what drives true agile thinking, and with large organisations, a change of culture is a significant challenge in itself. The first step is an honest assessment of current working culture, which will inform the change needed to transition to an agile approach. Transforming the bureaucracy associated with large public sector organisations into many small, self-contained agile teams, empowered to make rapid decisions and resolve issues quickly, will not happen overnight.
The role of the project management office with agile teams
There is still a role for the project management office in a world of empowered, self-organising, agile teams, and this role is essential. Agile teams in a large organisation are part of the wider enterprise, and still have important obligations to fulfil. With many independent, agile teams under its wing, the project management office is responsible for ensuring that the organisation is still delivering value, while maintaining quality, reputation and stakeholder confidence. Ultimately, the project management office is still responsible for oversight and governance, even as more power and individual decision-making is delegated to agile teams.
Agile project management tools
As project management becomes agile, the tools needed for effective team management evolve. The best agile tools for your team will vary, but they must cover the following important elements.
Agile teams need sophisticated task management tools. These tools can take the form of virtual Kanban or Scrum boards with projects, task lists, time records and expenses. This allows team members to track tasks that they are not directly involved in, and makes incomplete, in-progress tasks visible to the whole team, facilitating easy monitoring and “dovetailing” with other tasks.
Team collaboration tools allow for centralised, visible communication. Team members can share updates with each other, and with other local and distributed teams, and easily communicate with each other about shifting timelines, task lists, feedback and assignments.
Agile metrics, reporting and analytics
Reporting and analytics are vital to agile teams. Team members constantly responding to the metrics, data and analysis being compiled by the team as a whole is at the heart of what makes a team agile. These tools need to incorporate time tracking and projection, easy-to-understand progress reports for stakeholders, quality assurance and progress. There also need to be systems in place to identify and remedy project obstacles, evaluate performance and appraise financials.
Any individual tool is only as good as the system in which it operates. How well does each tool play with other tools you are using? The best approach to agile project management is often an integrated software system that can be easily customised to the needs of your team.
Project management teams can work together easily and efficiently in an agile environment. However, it does require that traditional project management techniques are adapted, with the core concepts and benefits of agility kept in mind as those adaptations are designed and implemented.